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Disability in Cross-Cultural Perspectives: Rethinking Disability

Editor's Note: This article is reprinted from Disability World, Issue No. 12, January-March, 2002: http://www.disabilityworld.org

In a recent article by medical anthropologist, Nora Groce, on the meaning of disability in various cultures, she suggests that cultures view disability in three ways: by its cause, by its effect on valued attributes, and by the status of the disabled person as an adult.

With regard to cause, people are treated well or poorly depending on cultural beliefs about how and why they became disabled. For instance, some cultures explain disability by witchcraft, reincarnation, divine displeasure, and genetics. In others, disability has a positive association--in northern Mexico and Botswana it is reported that the birth of a child with a disability is evidence of God's trust in a parent's ability to care for that child.

With regard to attributes, if a society values physical strength, then people with physical disabilities are at a disadvantage. If a society values intellectual accomplishments, then the fact that a person uses a wheelchair is not as limiting.

As for adult status, the willingness of a society to give resources to people with disabilities often depends on whether or not that individual will have an adult role in the community. Will that individual have a job? A family of his or her own?

Groce observes that, although improvements have been made to the quality of life for many people with disabilities, much remains to be done. According to United Nations reports, ten percent of the world's population, 600 million people, have a disability. Of that number, men have a literacy rate of three percent. Women have an even lower literacy rate (one percent).

Moreover, the most common form of employment for people with disabilities in less developed nations was begging. UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund) estimated that half the street children begging had some type of disability before they went to work on the streets.

According to Groce, health care professionals across the globe can help implement positive changes in how people with disabilities are perceived and treated. One change open to them is to insist that health policies and programs related to disability are tied to broader social and economic programs. She notes that international disability organizations, as well as national disability organizations, can work with health care professionals to make a difference.

In this report on cultural views of disability, Groce finds a truism to be alive and well all over the world: People with disabilities are far more limited by society's view of disability than by their actual disability.

The citation for a report on this study is: Groce, N. E. (August 28, 1999). Disability in Cross-Cultural Perspectives: Rethinking Disability. The Lancet 354, 756-757.